All the Light We Cannot See | Study Guide

Anthony Doerr

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All the Light We Cannot See | Part 9 : May 1944 | Summary



Edge of the World

In a flashback to May 1944, Werner is haunted by the image of the red-haired child in the velvet cape shot in Vienna. He seems to see her everywhere along the road the radio team now travels on their way to France. Werner is still ill and unable to keep down solid food.

At dawn they reach the northern rim of Brittany, with the walled city of Saint-Malo in the distance. At the checkpoint Werner exits the truck and crosses the beach to stand at the edge of the continent. It feels right somehow, as if this is the end point he has been moving toward since leaving Zollverein.

Inside the walled citadel, Volkheimer meets with a German field colonel. He explains that an enemy network seems to be at work, broadcasting encoded numbers, followed by announcements of births, deaths, baptisms, and engagements. After, there is music. Their meaning is a mystery. Volkheimer assures him the source will be found quickly.


Von Rumpel sees a doctor in Nuremberg who gives him four months—120 sunrises—to live. The sergeant major goes to a dinner party that night, where other attending officers talk about different numbers: the Eighth and Fifth German armies are retreating north through Italy, and the Tenth army might lose Rome. Some 100,000 men and 20,000 vehicles are involved.

While at the dinner table, the sergeant major is notified of a phone call. A man named Jean Brignon has information about Daniel LeBlanc. Over the phone he tells von Rumpel that the locksmith was arrested in January 1941 and is accused of conspiracy. The informer was Claude Levitte, a Malouin. LeBlanc was also photographed taking measurements in Saint-Malo. Brignon has not been able to trace LeBlanc's current whereabouts. Von Rumpel, however, reasons that LeBlanc would flee to Saint-Malo only if someone he trusted lived there.


The last days of May are beautiful in Saint-Malo, reminding Marie-Laure of the last days of May in Paris, 1940. When Marie-Laure visits the bakery, Madame Ruelle greets her as usual, but the girl can sense something has changed. Madame Ruelle's voice seems galvanized, and she may have been crying. "Tell your uncle," she says, "that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair."

Marie-Laure can only guess what the message means. She knows her uncle has been hearing rumors on his radio that a great armada has been gathering. She goes to the grotto to think things over. In her head she hears her Papa repeat the words Madame Ruelle has said: "They are coming, dear. Within the week."

Hunting (Again)

The radio team is scouring the towns of Brittany, trying to hunt down the illegal transmissions described by the German field officer—Etienne's. They are having no luck.

The team is stationed in the requisitioned Hotel of Bees. Werner and Bernd share a room on the top floor. At night, in Werner's imaginings, the dead girl from Vienna haunts the halls, hunting him. Airplanes "crawl across the sky" along the coast but are too far away to identify as friend or foe.

Untitled (Letter to Jutta)

Werner is well enough at last to write Jutta. He tells her of seeing the sea and describes its many colors. "It is my favorite thing, I think," he writes, "that I have ever seen."

"Claire de Lune"

The radio team is working the southern section of the walled city near the ramparts. Volkheimer drowses on a bench in the truck. Bernd is up on the parapet, where he is supposed to be monitoring the first transceiver. He is, in fact, asleep under his rain poncho. Suddenly, the static in Werner's headphones is replaced by a voice with a Breton accent relaying messages to "Madame Labas" and "Monsieur Ferey." The broadcast ends with the announcement "Next broadcast Thursday 2300," followed by strains of music.

Werner is transfixed. The quality of the transmission and tenor of the voice are those of that long-ago Frenchman, the Professor. The music is also the same. Werner checks to see if anyone else has heard. Volkheimer is asleep. Bernd fails to key his microphone, to say he has heard. The two Neumanns, sitting in the truck cab, are oblivious. In this moment Werner realizes he has a choice. He removes his headset and reports that no signal has been picked up.


While half of northern France is in flames and fighting on the beaches of Normandy devours men on both sides, Saint-Malo remains untouched. The occupying army positions an 88-millimeter cannon on the ramparts.

It's now Thursday. Three nights have passed since Werner heard the broadcast. Studying Saint-Malo from a third-floor window of the hotel, he has a hunch that one of its many tall chimneys is being used to mask the radio's antenna. He hurries out to walk the streets in the area. At about 2300 hours, he spots the antenna unfolding above Number 4 on rue Vauborel.

Big Claude

Von Rumpel has found the man who reported Daniel LeBlanc's odd measuring activities to the authorities. Claude Levitte, the perfumer, is eager to share what he knows with the German. He points out the house on rue Vauborel where Daniel stayed with his uncle.


Werner returns to Number 4 rue Vauborel a day after discovering the antenna. He fantasizes about ringing the bell and asking to be admitted; to meet the Frenchman. He would tell him that before the war he listened to the Frenchman on the radio.

As he stands at the corner, watching the house and imagining these things, the door opens. Instead of an old Frenchman, out steps "a slender, pretty, auburn-haired girl with a very freckled face." Moments later Werner realizes she is blind.

Captivated, he follows her to the bakery. On a bench outside sits "a goitrous and sallow German" reading a newspaper. Werner waits for the girl to come out of the bakery. His hands are shaking, and he can't seem to catch his breath. In his mind this girl represents the "pure they were always lecturing about at Schulpforta."


Instead of going straight home from the bakery, Marie-Laure goes to the grotto. But this time she is followed. She is just inside the gated area where mastiffs were kept long ago when a male German voice says, "Good morning, mademoiselle." He then asks why she comes here and will not let her leave until she answers a question about her father. He says her Papa is in a prison 500 kilometers away.

Marie-Laure can feel him reach for her. In panic she slams the gate shut in his face. He slips and falls, giving her time to turn the key in the lock. He protests that he is "just a lowly sergeant major [t]here to ask a question." Inside the kennel she crouches and wonders if the ironwork is too narrow for the man to squeeze through.


It has been half an hour since Marie-Laure left for the bakery. She is usually back not less than 23 minutes later. Her great-uncle has timed her.

After 32 minutes have passed, Etienne imagines Marie-Laure lost, hit by a truck, seized by a mercenary, or taken by the Germans because they found out about the bread.

At 34 minutes, Etienne puts on his hat and shoes, and "stands in the foyer summoning all his resolve." He fears the outdoors. Its open spaces are too bright; the sounds too loud. There are corpses stirring in the shadows. It's been 24 years since he last ventured out.

Now 35 minutes have passed. Etienne opens the door and steps outside.


Von Rumpel has Marie-Laure cornered behind the kennel gate in the grotto. He continues to question her about her father, his reasons for measuring buildings, and what he might have carried away for the museum—what he might have left with her.

Not knowing if the German can see her, Marie-Laure takes the bread loaf from her knapsack, breaks it open, and takes out the little scroll of paper. She then slips the paper into her mouth and begins to chew. Feeling alone and forsaken by God, she at last shouts out angrily, "He left me nothing ... Just a dumb model of this town and a broken promise."

On the other side of the gate, the German falls quiet.

Forty Minutes

Etienne makes it to the bakery. Seeing him, Madame Ruelle knows immediately something is amiss. Together they try to think where Marie-Laure could have gone. Etienne fears that he has traded all those numbers for her life.

Etienne knows that Marie-Laure goes to the sea. Suddenly he thinks of the grotto where he, Henri, and Hubert Bazin used to play. Followed by Madame Ruelle, he runs, traveling "the paths of his youth, navigating by instinct." In the grotto, he finds the girl, intact, crouching with the remains of the bread loaf in her lap. "You came," she says. "You came ..."

The Girl

Werner cannot stop thinking of the girl and wondering who she is. Perhaps she is the daughter of the Frenchman whose broadcasts Werner has not revealed. He wonders if Volkheimer knows of his deception.

On August first, the two Neumanns are reassigned to serve on the front lines in the defense of Saint-Malo. The radio team, reduced to three members, continues its work that night. Werner knows the Frenchman will broadcast again at 2:12 a.m. He will have to switch off the transmitter or pretend he hears only static.

Little House

Etienne tells Marie-Laure she can no longer go outside. He will make the daily visit to the bakery, though in his mind, the walk is "a gauntlet of a thousand dangers."

Marie-Laure's thoughts turn again and again to the questions she has been asked about her father and anything he might have told her or left her. On the sixth day of August, it occurs to her that the key lies in the odd lines from her father's last letter: "I'm sorry it turned out like this. If you ever wish to understand, look inside Etienne's house, inside the house." She also realizes that she has answered the German's question after all: "Just tell me if your father left anything with you." She recalls her response: "Just a dumb model of this town."

Marie-Laure scrambles up the stairs to her bedroom, finds the model house of Number 4 rue Vauborel, and with trembling fingers, solves its puzzle. When she turns it over, a pear-shaped stone drops into her hand.


The battle for Brittany has begun. Liberation is only days away, but the liberating forces need to know the location of the antiaircraft guns in Saint-Malo. Madame Ruelle tells Etienne that he must find and plot the guns' coordinates on a map and then broadcast the numbers. This will be his last chance to help. Tomorrow the Germans will be rounding up all the men of the city and imprisoning them at Fort National.

Etienne feels trapped in a spiderweb that binds him more tightly every moment. Nevertheless, he nods that he will do it.

Sea of Flames

Now that she has found the diamond, Marie-Laure struggles with what to do. She recalls its mythical properties: its keeper will live forever, but those he or she loves will be cursed. The stone may have been the source of much sorrow already—her father's arrest, the disappearance of Hubert Bazin, the death of Madame Manec. She is certain it is the thing the German seeks.

In the end she decides to keep the stone a secret. She returns it to its hiding place in the model house and drops the house into her pocket.

When it is almost dawn, Etienne leaves on his mission, as promised to Madame Ruelle. He assures Marie-Laure that he will be quick; he'll only be an hour.

The Arrest of Etienne LeBlanc

Etienne has already broadcast the coordinates of one antiaircraft battery: the rampart beside the Hotel of Bees. He only needs to take the bearings of two more.

Etienne is feeling strangely good as he carries out his mission. Then, as he approaches the bulwark of the ramparts, a limping man in uniform steps out of the shadows and comes toward him.

7 August 1944

Marie-Laure wakes to the boom of big guns firing nearby. Soon she discovers that her great-uncle has not yet returned and tries not to panic. Instead, she checks that the trip wire to the front gate is still intact. Then she fills two galvanized buckets with water and carries them up to her bedroom, and fills the tub on the third floor with water. Finally, she checks the little house she has been keeping under her pillow and returns it to its place in the model. Then she settles down to read a while.

In the afternoon, Claude Levitte, the perfumer, comes to the door. He is there to convince Marie-Laure that she must come with him; evacuation orders have been issued, and she must get to a shelter immediately. Her great-uncle has asked him to help her. She is to leave everything behind and come with him. He mentions that the men of the city are being detained but does not say Etienne is one of them.

Marie-Laure senses a trap; someone has put the perfumer up to this. Refusing to go with him, she closes and bolts the door. After a few moments of indecision, Claude Levitte goes away.


Inside the Hotel of Bees, Werner, Bernd, Volkheimer, a German lieutenant, and the team of eight Austrians in charge of the cannon eat a meal served on hotel china. On the seaward side of the hotel, the big 88-millimeter cannon waits in its fortified position on the ramparts.

After the meal, Werner slips upstairs to a window with a view of the sea, the city, and the red glow of a battle just out of sight to the east. The Americans, he knows, "have them pinned against the sea." He feels this moment is a borderland between "whatever has happened already and whatever is to come." He thinks of the girl and is glad that at least he has protected her secret and kept her safe.

As he is about to close the window, he spots a plane flying over the citadel. It drops "a flock" of white paper leaflets that fall over the city. They urge the inhabitants of Saint-Malo to "depart immediately to open country."


The tension builds in Part 9 as events accumulate toward the story's climax. All the key players are in Saint-Malo, and there are signs that liberation of the citadel is near. Von Rumpel picks up the last pieces of the puzzle connecting the Sea of Flames to the model of Saint-Malo in Etienne's house. Soon after, Marie-Laure is awakened to her peril as holder of the Sea of Flames. In a turning point for Werner, he grabs the chance to reclaim his soul. For love of Marie-Laure, Etienne overcomes his fears of open spaces. And throughout, the influences of destiny and free-will choice continue to work in tandem to shape events.

From conversation at a dinner party attended by von Rumpel, the reader learns how the German war machine is breaking down. Later in Saint-Malo, the baker's wife, Madame Ruelle, happily whispers to Marie-Laure, "the hour has come ... they are coming." Before long, American planes cruise the sky off the coast of Brittany. Then Allied bombs begin demolishing rail stations, and occupied towns begin falling to Allied forces. The demand for German men to replace the wounded and strengthen the front lines is overwhelming. All of these are signposts pointing to Germany's imminent defeat.

This pending doom adds tension as von Rumpel closes in on the location of the Sea of Flames. After losing its trail in Paris, von Rumpel learns what happened to the museum's locksmith after the bombing of Paris. The trail now leads to Saint-Malo. The sergeant major correctly assumes Daniel was in the city prior to his arrest because he trusted someone living there. With the help of the Saint-Malo perfumer, Big Claude, von Rumpel connects Daniel and the Sea of Flames with Etienne's house. Already he knows from Daniel's intercepted letters that the diamond is hidden somewhere "inside Etienne's house." Marie-Laure unwittingly supplies the German with the final clue to the diamond's whereabouts when, in the grotto, she says her father left her with "a dumb model of this town."

This exchange with von Rumpel foreshadows the moment when Marie-Laure at last comprehends what "look inside Etienne's house, inside the house" means. When she does, she also realizes the peril she is in; this is what the limping German is after.

During their grotto confrontation—before Marie-Laure's epiphany—the girl again demonstrates remarkable courage, quick thinking, and resourcefulness. The scene has the quality of a dark fairytale. Von Rumpel is a cruel ogre who traps her in the cave and uses her blindness as a tool to frighten her. The manner in which he blocks her escape route and tries to reach out for her is nightmarish. Yet Marie-Laure keeps her wits, swiftly locks herself behind the grotto gate, and consumes the scroll of codes he may be after. This cool-headedness and courage will serve her later when Big Claude comes to abduct her from Etienne's house. In both instances, Marie-Laure becomes like her beloved whelks, withdrawing into a safe place and determined to survive in a harsh world.

Werner's finer qualities reassert themselves in Part 9. He has been struggling with shame and guilt for quite some time. Memories of Jutta and Frederick prick his conscience and remind him of things he once believed in. He is haunted by the child murdered in Vienna. Finally, his fever—born of exhaustion, soul sickness, and remorse—burns away the layers of self-deceit that have protected him from the truth: He has betrayed everything he once cherished. Upon reaching Saint-Malo, he is ready to turn in a new direction.

Finding himself at the edge of the sea, Werner feels this is "the end point [he] has been moving toward ever since he left Zollverein." In his subsequent letter to Jutta, he seems to have awakened like a fairytale character bound by a dark enchantment. His eyes are open, just as the Professor counseled long ago. He tells Jutta he is feeling clearheaded now and describes the sea in terms of childlike wonder. Knowing Werner is fated to be trapped in the hotel cellar in just a few days, the reader wonders: Have his eyes opened too late?

When Werner picks up Etienne's broadcast, the voice so like the Professor's calls him back to Children's House, when "the cords of his soul [were] not yet severed." Here is the turning point, when Werner knows he has a choice to make. He thinks of Frederick, who believed there were no choices in life but then made a life-changing choice with the words "I will not." Disregarding his duty, Werner does not report the transmission to Volkheimer. His disobedience casts him in a new and dangerous role as an enemy of the Reich.

Werner's decision draws him to seek out Etienne's house with hopes of meeting the Professor. Instead he finds Marie-Laure. While she is unaware of it, a tangible connection to Werner is now established. It is one-sided and only visual, and as such, fragile and incomplete. For Marie-Laure it goes unnoticed, while it makes an indelible impression on Werner. On the same day, von Rumpel makes a similar connection, drawing dangerously closer to Marie-Laure in the grotto. The reader's awareness of future events leaves open the question of how this connection with Werner will help her.

In Part 9 the reader gets a closer look at the terrible fears spawned by Etienne's agoraphobia. This makes his fight to overcome the condition and search for Marie-Laure all the more courageous and admirable. Clearly his love for the girl has grown into fatherly protectiveness. Etienne's arrest at the end of this section explains his absence from the house during the bombing of Saint-Malo. It may be assumed that the unnamed limping German who approaches him is von Rumpel.

Throughout this section, the influences of destiny and free-will choices continue to work in tandem to shape events. For example, the reader knows Volkheimer harbors doubts about the moral path he has followed in service of the Reich (revealed in Part 8, "The Beams"). Nevertheless, it is clear at this time he fully intends to fulfill his duties in Saint-Malo. He assures the German colonel that the enemy radio transmissions will be found and their operators eliminated. His destiny and theirs is dictated by his duty to the Reich.

Yet Volkheimer rebels against duty when Werner conceals picking up the enemy broadcast. A description of the moment suggests that the staff sergeant chooses to ignore the deception. The narrator states, "Just behind Werner, Volkheimer's eyelids remain closed." This does not mean he is asleep or unaware of what has transpired. Later Werner will suspect that the staff sergeant knows. Volkheimer's decision will significantly alter future events.

The Sea of Flames is tied up in the push and pull between destiny and free-will choice. Both forces have brought the stone to Saint-Malo and placed it in Marie-Laure's hands. Logic tells her to get rid of it or give it to the German. Yet if the curse is real, the stone must not fall into other hands—not even her great-uncle Etienne's. It also may be protecting her, as her father seems to have believed. Yet, as Dr. Geffard once told her, "Wars might have been fought over it." Round and round her thoughts go, rational beliefs once again wrestling with the irrational. The questions for the reader are: Has destiny placed the diamond in Marie-Laure's care? Or can she exercise free will and rid the world of its curse? If destiny and choice work together, then perhaps the answer to both questions is yes.

Doerr's use of language contributes to the sense of building tension in Part 9. He conveys the agony of waiting for both major characters with long sentences punctuated by "and." Waiting for her great-uncle in "7 August 1944," for instance, Marie-Laure fills buckets and carries them and sets them in a corner and thinks and then fills the bathtub with water. Eating in the hotel, knowing a battle is coming, Werner observes that the Germans sit on sandbags and Bernd falls asleep and Volkheimer talks and the Austrians chew steadily. The repetition conveys the numbing tedium of waiting along with an anxiety so great the characters can hardly organize their own thoughts. It is also another link between the characters who are about to meet.
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